The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel
by David Lodge
Harvill Secker ₤18.99, 240 pages

You have to feel sorry for David Lodge. In 2003 he finished writing Author, Author, a fictionalisation of the late life of Henry James, only to discover that Irish novelist Colm Toibin was about to publish his own version of James’s twilight years. Toibin’s book, The Master, appeared in 2004, a few months ahead of Lodge’s, and received critical praise (it went on to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize). When Author, Author was launched, literary critics could not resist weighing it against The Master. “It’s not that David Lodge has written a weak novel about Henry James,” one pundit declared. “It’s just that it suffers in comparison to a brilliant one.”

As a subject of inquiry, the reception of literary works - how they are read and evaluated by critics and the general public - has been mostly confined to the realms of academia. But Lodge is upset about the reception given to his book, so he has pre-empted academics and literary historians by composing The Year of Henry James, a distressed account of his annus horribilis.

Lodge begins by proving that he had been contemplating his Henry James project for a long time. “I first made a note about the relationship between Henry James and George Du Maurier as a subject for imaginative treatment in November 1995,” he writes. He may have been busy with other work, but “the idea was always simmering quietly on the back-burner of my own consciousness.” Even then, when he finally began his research he was one step ahead of other authors sniffing around the same turf. The tenant and curator of Lamb House, Henry James’s residence in East Sussex and the setting for the greater part of both novels, assured Lodge “that my visit preceded that of the other writers”.

From people who read his typescript Lodge got “encouraging overall reactions”. A publisher assured him, “with obvious sincerity, that he liked it very much”. And even an assistant editor sent a message letting him know “how much I LOVED Author, Author”. Lodge adds, knowingly: “Publishers and other media folk often flatter authors, of course, and throw words of praise around rather extravagantly, but in my experience when they say they ‘love’ something they usually mean it.” What could possibly go wrong, then?

“Timing is all” is a main theme of this essay, and Lodge blames his misfortunes on bad timing. “It seemed to me obvious that if two novels on substantially the same subject and of comparable intrinsic merit were published in the same year, the one that appeared first would cream off much of the interest, curiosity and surprise that such a book might excite in critics and ordinary readers.” This is a gross underestimation of critics’ and readers’ judgment and, crucially, blames the order of publication while refusing to consider the matter of “intrinsic merit”.

It is a matter that Lodge himself is hardly in a position to judge, having refused steadfastly to read The Master. This does not stop him, however, from commenting on the two novels’ respective strengths and weaknesses. “Both of us have invented some incidents - Toibin perhaps more boldly than I (at least, I have received that impression).”

Literary critics and gossip-mongers will be fascinated by The Year of Henry James and its glimpses into a rarefied world of anxious writers and competitive publishers. Other readers may find it ungainly. For what begins as an author’s musings on an extraordinary coincidence soon becomes a splenetic bluster with the whiff of sour grapes, as unbecoming of a writer of Lodge’s stature as it is graceless towards a fellow novelist. “Like James I must suffer the pangs of professional envy and jealousy while struggling to conceal them,” he writes, and one doesn’t know whether to pity him, applaud his honesty or tell him to pull his socks up.

Lodge, best known for classic campus comedies such as Changing Places and Small World, has been so traumatised by his travails that he fails to see in them the elements of his own earlier fiction - intellectual rivalries, bruised egos, humorous mishaps. The story in The Year of Henry James would have made a fine comic novel, if only Lodge hadn’t been so quick to turn it into a tragedy.

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